Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Wednesday, 27 May 2009 10:49 UK

The US broadband battle

By Drew Clark


The BBC's Michelle Fleury samples free broadband in New York.

In the United States, the current battle over broadband dates back three years, to 28 June, 2006.
That was when former Republican Senator Ted Steven, of Alaska, famously declared: "The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes."

The remarks came as the Senate Commerce Committee that he chaired was considering a massive telecommunications bill that strongly favoured the incumbent Bell companies, AT&T and Verizon Communications.

The bill would have granted regulatory relief to telcos seeking to enter into the video marketplace, which is dominated in the US by cable television carriers like Comcast. The Republican House had resoundingly passed the measure, and Stevens' job was simply to get the ball through the goal posts.

Stevens failed badly. The key amendment - which would have imposed "network neutrality" rules upon the Bell companies - failed on a tie vote. But the amendment, and Stevens' rant , prompted an enormous backlash.

Stevens seemed to be saying that the broadband carriers like AT&T and Verizon needed the right to discriminate.

Nothing could be further from the political landscape of US broadband policy today. In his first month in office, President Obama spearheaded a massive fiscal stimulus bill that featured $7.2 billion devoted to new spending on broadband infrastructure.

Map of the world

While the price tag seems high to some, it is only about 1% of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's total outlay. Far more significant are the rules that govern the expenditure of funds: for private companies even to be eligible to participate, the Secretary of Commerce must declare that funding their proposals would be in "the public interest". The final rules are under consideration and are expected by June 30.

Under Obama, net neutrality isn't openly discussed. That isn't because the Bell companies have embraced it. It's because everyone knows where the votes are; if the carriers were so bold as to press their luck.

Fibre-optic cables, Eyewire
Pressure groups see broadband investment as vital to the US economy

Indeed, net neutrality remains a powerful undercurrent in the politics of American broadband today. The Google and Microsoft-led backlash to the Bell bill in 2006 created one more chink in the Republican armour. It played a role in, and could have aided Congress switching sides in 2006. Obama, of course, is a Democrat who strongly endorsed net neutrality early in his candidacy for the president.

By one set of statistics, the state of US broadband has never looked better. According to the most recent statistics from the Federal Communications Commission (December 2007), there are 121 million broadband lines in service, a 20% increase over the previous six months.

But the statistic that more broadband watchers turn to is produced by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which in July 2008 concluded that 55% of all adult Americans subscribe to broadband in early 2008 - versus 38% of rural Americans, and 25% of low-income Americans.

Even in mid-2008 - before the recession had been declared - Pew was already finding a slow-down in the growth of broadband, particularly for low-income Americans. Pew's study also found increasing stratification in broadband adoption by price and by geography.

Man digging up road to lay cable
Some US firms are favouring laying new fibre

Among those who have long viewed America's glass as half-empty, the Obama administration has been a godsend, in part because he is a president who uses the Internet, and appears to want others to do the same.

The other is his repeated commitments, such as a speech during the campaign to push for the stimulus package, describing the goal of "expanding broadband lines across America." Among the apt followers is Michael Copps, a Democrat who was in the minority at the FCC for the past eight years. "I'm enthused as I can be that this country is finally, finally going to develop a national broadband plan," said Copps, currently acting Chairman of the FCC, last week.

Creating this national plan by February 2010, a requirement of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was something that the Republican philosophy of laissez-faire simply couldn't stomach, he said.

Other advocates waiting in the wings are even more poetic. Many see broadband infrastructure as the new "future of civic engagement," in the words of Harold Feld, legal director of the non-profit group Public Knowledge. It is "something which government should have a role in nurturing, fostering and encouraging."

He said that Obama's approach sent a very strong message for broadband incumbents: broadband "is not all about you".

But it will still take both suppliers and demanders of broadband to bring about better speeds, lower prices, and more uniform availability and adoption.

In yet another departure from past telecom practices, the fiscal stimulus package seeks to subsidise not only un-served areas, but areas that have slower service, such as basic digital subscriber lines. Long loop-lines in the United States effectively limit DSL download speeds to 3 Megabits per second (Mbps). Cable companies, by contrast, have been steadily boosting their speeds, and now typically offer downloads in excess of 6 to 8 Mbps in suburban and urban areas.

Verizon has attempted to leap-frog over that cable competition by persistently expanding the footprint of its fibre-optic service that goes all the way to the household. Verizon Senior Vice President of Technology Mark Wegleitner said last month that the network now passes 13.2 million households, and that it has 2.8 million Internet customers, or about 22 percent of homes taking the service.

We are conscious of the speed issue, and there is no doubt that people want more
Brent Olson, AT&T

The company plans to up that number by three million homes a year until 2010, when 18 million homes will be passed. That is just over half of the 34 million wireline homes that Verizon serves - at download speeds ranging from 5Mbps to 100Mbps.

AT&T, by contrast, is sticking with "fibre to the node". It claims 17 million households in its network - with a claimed highest speed of 18Mbps, at considerably slower speeds than Verizon. "We are conscious of the speed issue, and there is no doubt that people want more," said Brent Olson, assistant vice president of public policy at AT&T. "At the same time, people can be a little myopically focused on speed." In addition to focusing on wireless initiatives, AT&T is seeking to simplify the Internet experience for its users.

Other entrants stand in the wings, too. Clearwire has quietly launched its WiMax service in Baltimore, Portland, Ore., and, most recently, Atlanta. IBM has been pushing broadband over power lines, a perennial technology that still has many hurdles to cross.

And among rural fibre carriers, who have finally seen vindication for their technology with Verizon's investment, see the stimulus as their next best shot at coming out of obscurity.

Drew Clark is Editor of, a provider of news and information about local broadband speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition.

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